It’s no secret that Chicago is a foodie’s nirvana: Our fair city boasts 26 Michelin-starred restaurants. Some have avant-garde tasting menus where A-list chefs play mad scientist, while others have painstakingly perfected the staples. Here, we round up the cream of the crop based on creativity, atmosphere and the ability to actually get a table (sorry, Schwa).
Admittedly, it’s not always easy to get a spur-of-the-moment seat unless you fancy dining around 5:30 pm or after 9, but it’s possible. There’s a reason this place is always packed: The restaurant earned rave four-star reviews from nearly every local critic and snagged two Michelin stars the first year. Once you actually get a spot, the next challenge is finding Oriole. It’s located in the alley of a loading-dock side street, up an ominously shaky freight elevator. But inside, prepare to be thrilled by a 15-course meal ($190 per person) that has everything from prawns to Japanese Wagyu to gingerbread.
One of only two establishments in the city to earn three Michelin stars (the other is Alinea), Grace is a true standout on Chicago’s fine-dining circuit. Helmed by Curtis Duffy, who’s been hailed as a culinary wizard, the restaurant has two tasting menus, Fauna and Flora (for vegetarians), each available as either eight or 12 courses. So revered are the chef and the restaurant, that they are the subject of the 2016 documentary “For Grace” (available on Netflix). While its fame is well-earned, it doesn’t come cheap: The menus start at $235, making Grace one of the most expensive meals in the country. Sometimes you get what you pay for.
French-born chef J. Joho has managed to keep this Loop restaurant relevant—and well-rated—for 30 years. Since opening its doors in ’86, it has kept its four-star rating from the Chicago Tribune and has earned Michelin stars six of the last seven years. Known for upscale French cuisine influenced heavily by Chef Joho’s upbringing in Alsace, expect a meal dripping with old-school elegance—not butter. In between dishes (we recommend trying the lobster, which has been on the menu for 25 years), diners can take in stunning views from the restaurant’s prime location on the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange.
Chef Andrew Zimmerman’s restaurant has been a staple of the food scene for years, holding on to its Michelin star since it was first awarded in 2011. Former First Lady Michelle Obama counts it as one of her favorite spots in the city. Housed in an old 19th-century printshop, every detail was considered, from the custom Art Nouveau floor to the vintage stemware. Sepia features a modern American menu with hints of influences from Asia and the Mediterranean. The stellar dish is the gnocchi, which the Michelin review described as “flawless.” Sepia fans rejoice: This June, Zimmerman and the team will be opening their new outpost Proxi next door.
This bi-level restaurant sports two different personalities. Downstairs is The Loyalist, a relaxed spot where walk-ins are welcome and the menu is a la carte. Upstairs is the homey (but more refined) Smyth, where the open kitchen is run by husband and wife team John Shields and Karen Urie Shields, who cut their teeth at the famed Charlie Trotter’s. The tasting menu is a collection of seasonal, creative—but not experimental—dishes like brioche donuts with aged beef au jus.
Band of Bohemia
At the first Michelin-starred brewpub diners can enjoy a meal focused as much on the pints as the plates. The rotating beers on tap all have a culinary slant. Take, for instance, the Maitake Wheat, which uses roasted Japanese mushrooms to create a potent brew ripe with what they call “ethereal whimsy.” Between sips, nosh on small plates like foie gras schnitzel or tackle larger portions with dishes like grilled pork collar with cherries and pickled apples.